the global practice of genital mutilation -- 3/3/20
Today's selection -- from The Century of Women by Maria Bucur. The widespread and highly controversial global practice of genital mutilation:
"Female genital cutting continues as a common practice in more than thirty countries, primarily in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, but to a lesser extent also in Europe, North America, and Australia, especially with the growth of transcontinental migration. In 2016 more than two hundred million women around the world had undergone the procedure, primarily at the hands of other women. This is a very old practice that was also reintroduced in Europe in the nineteenth century by male doctors as a way to control 'unruly' female sexuality, such as masturbation.
"As feminist reformers ramped up critiques against such practices, genital cutting was terminated in the early twentieth century in some places, especially Europe and North America. In other regions, especially where the practice was connected to much older grassroots traditions about gender roles, female genital mutilation continued without much change in attitude of the primarily female practitioners for much of the twentieth century. In some colonial African states, the practice became a form of gendered resistance to European occupation. Young women even took the step to self-circumcise as a way to mark their authentic local roots against evangelical missionaries' attempts to stamp out such 'godless' practices.
"Since the second half of the twentieth century the UN has played an important role in turning informal pressure to end genital cutting into a very public indictment, linking female genital mutilation to the violation of women's basic human rights as defined by the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Scientists began doing research on genital mutilation and provided evidence of its associated recurring pain, diminishing sex drive, and medical complications, such as difficulty with birthing and higher risk of HIV transmission. Many states where the practice was common subsequently passed legislation making various forms of female genital mutilation illegal. But the shift away from this practice has been much slower than the enactment of official policies outlawing it. Practitioners, a majority of them women, continue to identify it as an important rite of passage that brings girls into the community of womanhood and reaffirms elderly women's own social authority in the group. They claim that eliminating it would break up that female bond and render uncircumcised girls outcasts in their society.
"As recently as 2016, women in Indonesia, a country where around 50 percent of young women still undergo the procedure, praised it as nonharmful and a point of pride for young women. The main controversy that continues to surround female genital cutting has to do with how we understand cultural difference and women's agency in performing the circumcision. Mutilating the clitoris or vagina through cutting has earned much criticism from Western secular observers. Yet many Western women choose to pierce and insert a variety of objects in their bodies, inclusive of nipples and the clitoris, and to dramatically alter their appearance through plastic surgery without having to suffer the ire of the medical establishment. If significant groups of women refuse to consider themselves as victims of the practice, regardless of the research that points toward a number of possible or even frequent long-term deleterious medical effects of genital mutilation, the argument about violating their human rights assumes connotations of racist universalism.
"According to UNICEF, men in countries where genital mutilation is a common practice seem more favorably disposed toward ending it than women do: In Guinea 41 percent of young men ages fifteen to nineteen favor ending genital cutting, while only 27 percent of young women in the same age range, who most likely would have recently witnessed or experienced the procedure, do. In Sierra Leone, the disparity is even larger -- 36 percent among men to 13 percent among women. This practice and especially ongoing debates about its meaning suggest that there are limits to gender self-identification across other (ethnic, religious, kinship) divides, and that our ability to understand women's sexuality in the context of many political and cultural changes over the twentieth century cannot discount such persisting differences as any kind of lag in development. The challenge for the twenty-first century is to develop a more selfconsciously diverse understanding of these practices and the norms they embody. We need to begin a conversation about sexuality and reproduction that can engage women in different societies with greater respect toward these differences and greater humility toward what some consider 'normal' but others don't."